CMAP and Digital Literacy
Several months ago, I wrote about a showcase put on by graduate students in the Comparative Media Analysis and Practice (CMAP) program. As I noted then, CMAP is a joint-PhD program open to PhD students from disciplines through the university. Students with this joint degree not only have the skills and knowledge that come from their primary degree but also have skills in the critical investigation of modern media culture, as well as innovative digital crafts. When I wrote before, I had attended a showcase of the students digital work that emerged from a Maymester course they had taken in which students presented their ideas through media formats that were alternatives to the traditional academic essay.
This semester, I am the instructor for the program, teaching a course called “Media Ecology”, which ultimately asks students to ask on a theoretical and practical level how changes in dominant media alter both “being” and “knowledge” in a culture. That is, how does communication in some sense shape or determine the shape of what we communicate. The course mixes reading from scholars with “trade book” thoughts to fiction and popular film. In every case, I ask the students to think through these various forms and how knowledge is “different” as a result of changes in mediation.
I have students in the class getting PhDs in German, French, History, English, Community Research and Action, Anthropology and more. For the most part, these students have been in classes together over the past two years. As a result of their bonding, I felt like an outsider joining a community on the first day (indeed, I have had to learn some of the rituals they have developed as a community over the last two years). Here is what I have observed: These are students who have developed an amazingly flexible and nimble way of thinking. Not only have they had to learn to speak across pretty wide disciplinary boundaries-something we always hope will happen with transdisciplinary work-but they have also had to learn to work utilizing various media for both presentation and for critical evaluation. If we see both disciplinary boundaries and digital technologies as two different types of technology (one a technology meant to put parameters on knowledge and method; the other doing simply as a result of function), these students are being forced-and forcing themselves-to think beyond the confines of particular technologies. As a result, it is not simply the content of these courses that is providing the students with a powerful set of tools, it is the way they are having to break down barriers in thinking and in articulating ideas that is truly impressive, almost revolutionary.
I dare say that when you place these students back in their regular PhD classes, they have a far looser, far more expansive way of thinking, speaking and acting. I have referred several times to the White Paper on Digital Literacy in this forum; there is a sense in which these students are illustrating the culture we hope emerges from a campus wide focus on digital literacy: students who are able to think and present in a variety of ways, thinking and communicating in a digital culture with a great degree of flexibility. CMAP is evidence of the promise this route holds.